Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The pseudoHerodotean Origins of the English Patient

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The pseudoHerodotean Origins of the English Patient

Article excerpt

THE STORY OF HOW HERODUTUS came into Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient is of some interest in its own right, especially since it appears to have been by a "pseudoHerodotean" path of inquiry carried out by the author in light of a poetic vision that he pursued as a quasi-historical event. While the term "pseudoHerodotean" has pejorative overtones, it is meant primarily as an accurate descriptive: "pseudoHerodotean" attempts to catch the complexity of Ondaatje's self-conscious exercise in historical inquiry (Herodotean historia), in a way that ultimately abuses historia for the sake of poetica. It is this unHerodotean abuse of historia that makes it "pseudoHerodotean." Ironically, it was Ondaatje's pseudoHerodotean use of historia that led him to discover Herodotus, the father of Western history, in the hands of the Hungarian explorer, Laszlo Almasy. And it was clearly this discovery that proved crucial to the writing of the Patient, where it gave rise to the enigmatic figure of Almasy-Herodotus. This figure of Herodotus in the hands of Almasy provides an "object correlative" for Ondaatje's (postcolonial) ambivalence toward the "grand narrative" of Western history. (1) Such ambivalence informs Ondaatje's abuse of historical research, historical narrative and historical fiction that is here characterized as pseudoHerodotean.

Our concern is not so much with a textual study of the Patient, as it is with an examination of the author's account of its origins in several interviews, his historical research connected with the Royal Geographical Society in the 1930s, and a historiographic comparison on key points with The Histories of Herodotus. Several minor points of speculation in the paper might be resolved by asking the author--for instance, whether he actually read Almasy's monograph, Recentes explorations dans le Desert Libyque. Personally, I am reluctant to ask the author, partly because I do not wish to intrude into his (busy) private life, and partly because I enjoy the freedom to speculate upon what the author has made public without recourse to authorial verification. (2) (Look at how "upstairs" verification of a goal has ruined hockey!)

Our reliance on the author's commentary on his own work and its origins also raises the question of how far we can trust him to speak knowingly or truthfully about it. Ondaatje's reluctance to speak straightforwardly about himself and, in a lesser way, about his work is well-documented (Jewinski 10; Solecki 321). (3) His penchant for personal mythology (at least as a younger author) is equally well-known (despite his criticism of Leonard Cohen on that score [Leonard Cohen 14]), and novelised in Running in the Family (Barbour 136; Bush 239; Jewinski 112-17; Hutcheon, "Running" 307). It could even be that he mythologizes (habitually or unconsciously) his own modus operandi. (After all, personal memory, Ondaatje reminds us, is constantly subject to revision [Wachtel 258].) But based on its remarkable consistency in different tellings, and its consistency with earlier accounts of how his works originated, his account of the Patient's origins are quite believable. (4) Caveat lector--it may not be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. (For example, he never mentions a rather obvious debt to Robertson Davies' Fifth Business for the basic conceit of an "English patient," and the use of the Herodotean story of Candaules, which must have come into play at some point.) Hopefully, the insight gained by our study of his authorial commentary justifies our use of it "as is."


"I fell burning into the desert.... It was the time of the war in heaven." (5)

Of the genesis of the Patient Ondaatje insists that it originated with an image: "It began with this [image of a] plane crash and it went on from there" (Kamiya). "I had this little fragment of a guy who had crashed in the desert. I didn't know who he was, or anything" (Scobie 92). (5) The creative process by which a single poetic image evolved into a complex work of "historical" fiction began with a compulsion (characteristic of the author) toward historical inquiry, what Herodotus calls "historia": "Almost the first image I had was of this man who was a complete mystery to me. …

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